The Killer Rabbit in the American Psyche

    One the greatest cinematic scenes of all time, comedic or otherwise, in my humble opinion, is the exchange between Dennis and King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Of course, the film itself is one of greatest of all time and one could spend an academic life studying its influence on the adolescent male humor in just America alone.  But the scene between Dennis and King Arthur rises above the rest of the film in its brilliance, and in particular its ability to express some deep insights about society, power, and politics while being just plain bloody hell funny.

    The reason this scene popped into my mind was a recent news blog here posted by A Guy Called LULU regarding Henry A. Giroux’s essay Violence, USA:  The Warfare State and the Brutalizing of Everyday Life on the Truthout website.  I intended to write a single blog about the essay, but it turns out that it will take more than one.  In part because there is much that I agree with Giroux, and in part because where Giroux goes off the track in my opinion is something important to explore for those on the Left. 

    Much of what Giroux is attempting to opine about can be summed up with Dennis’ famous exclamation: Come see the violence inherent in system! Help I’m being repressed!

     

     

    There is great truth in this exclamation and I believe a place where Giroux and I find common ground.  The key point of departure between the two of us is Giroux’s assertion that “the metaphysics of war and associated forms of violence now creep into every aspect of American society” since 9/11 in such a way that it has resulted in a significant transformation of American pysche.

    I would argue we and our cultural institutions are no more or less brutal and barbaric today than we were in 1981, 1991 or 2001.  In fact, I would argue that the result of actually living with real war has made us overall more sensitive and thus more resistant to the violence inherent in the system. 

    This is not to say we are a great example of a peaceful culture.  There are definitely redeeming qualities, but American culture is one which is in many ways saturated in blood.  One would not get an argument from me that the American culture and the psyches it manifests have plenty of room for improvement.

    [Of course, we are dealing here with grand generalizations, which are limited in their preciseness.]  

    The first scene from Holy Grail that popped into mind was not the one between Arthur and Dennis, but rather the scene with infamous killer rabbit.  There are two reasons why this particular scene popped into my head.

    The first one that came to mind resulted from my dialogue with LULU on the issue of an essayist having an agenda.  I agree with LULU that there is a negative connotation to the phrase ‘so and so has an agenda,’ but it shouldn’t.  The negative should be for the content of that agenda, not because an essayist has one.  The reason being that we all have a multitude of agendas, some of which are hidden to our own selves, that we that we bring to the table each time we interact with people.  These agendas are a bubbling mix of emotions, needs, passions, thoughts, experiences, ideologies, perceptions, beliefs, and so on.

    This is particularly the case when we write essays, blogs, and the like.  In our attempt to prove our case, we are like Tim the Enchanter trying to convince Arthur and his knights by saying “Look at the bones!”

    The second reason emerged because one of Giroux’s bones was the recent film The Hunger Games.  He asserts:

    The film and its success are symptomatic of a society in which violence has become the new lingua franca.

    Given Hollywood's rush for ratings, the film gratuitously feeds enthralled audiences with voyeuristic images of children being killed for sport. In a very disturbing opening scene, the audience observes children killing each other within a visual framing that is as gratuitous as it is alarming. That such a film can be made for the purpose of attaining high ratings and big profits, while becoming overwhelming popular among young people and adults alike, says something profoundly disturbing about the cultural force of violence and the moral emptiness at work in American society.

    Now, again, I would agree with Giroux there exists a powerful cultural force of violence and moral emptiness at work in American society.  Our difference is that we are not any significantly more empty on the moral front, nor is that cultural force of violence any more powerful since 2001. 

    [Nor does this mean I believe that since the wars overseas have not had the impact Giroux is attempting to give them, these wars are a good thing to be happening.]

    I don’t know, but it may be that Giroux has not had the experience of watching the Holy Grail and listening to the giddy laughter of an audience as the rabbit lunges from one knight to another, blood spurting as the knights scream.  Just as Tim the Enchanter laughs at them as Arthur yells “Run away! Run away!”

    Of course, one can come up with movie after movie, scene after scene, that demonstrates the American audience bloodlust desire long before 2001 for gratuitous violence as a means to be entertained, whether comedic or dramatic. 

    In the debate with LULU, I brought up 1971’s Dirty Harry and his .44 Magnum.  That one of the more enduring cultural quotes of America is "You've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?" sums things up pretty well.

    The violence inherent in the American cultural system has been perpetuating itself in America since the very beginning when the Europeans first came ashore.  Which is part of the point.  It is a system that goes back to Dennis, and well before him. 

    Whether we are at war or not, the killer rabbit in our pysche laughs and laughs as the Black Knight looks down at where blood squirts in a long stream after Arthur has cut off his arm and says “It’s just a scratch...I've had worse”

    What that killer rabbit exactly is, and how it sustains and replicates itself is for another blog (or two).

    Comments

    When watching Monty Python, I don't think we are laughing in glee at the sight of a man being brutally killed. We are laughing at the absurd premise of a cute bunny being cast as a murderous monster. I don't think you get the idea of absurdist comedy.

    Or maybe that's just me.

    And I do think the fact that a bleak dystopian savage story such as the Hunger Games is a best-selling book for pre-teens is worthy of some serious social commentary. That, and the other interesting comments Giroux makes about how kids lives have become maniacally, paranoically, micromanaged as compared to even twenty years ago.


    Whatever label one wants to put on it, we are still laughing at man being dismembered one limb at a time until he is nothing but a stomp.  Because it is done so over-the-top, it allows for a certain distance, which makes it possible for us to laugh at it. 

    One has to ask - just why it is so funny, at least to some? Where is the humor in it? Where is the difference between that laughter and the laughter of two young boys as they pull the wings off of a fly or blow up an anthill with some firecrackers?

    I ask these questions as someone who personally cannot help but giggle every time I see it, and I have seen it many many times.


    When I think of the Black Knight I always think of poor Stonewall Jackson.

    Jackson had more maladies than any soldier I ever heard of.

    He was mostly deaf, suffered from Asperger's syndrome, dyspepsia, narcolepsy, and of course lost an arm just prior to his death.

    The EMT's actually dropped him from his gurney attempting to get him off the battle field.

    I mean it took an awful lot to actually kill the bugger!


     The key point of departure between the two of us is Giroux’s assertion that “the metaphysics of war and associated forms of violence now creep into every aspect of American society” since 9/11 in such a way that it has resulted in a significant transformation of American pysche.

    I would agree that 9/11 did not radically transform the nature of the problem we see in the American psyche. What it did do, IMO, is akin to a situation where a patient who has had, for a long time, blood pressure high enough that remedial attention should have been taken. Something happens to make the pressure spike even higher so the patient adds three or four new medicines that all carry the risk of dangerous side effects and, in further response to his fear, starts eating more junk food than ever before.


    The film [Hunger Games] and its success are symptomatic of a society in which violence has become the new lingua franca.

    I agree that the film is symptomatic of the problem but it and so much more of popular entertainment are also a contributing factors to the problem in what becomes a positively reinforcing feedback loop.

    I would argue we and our cultural institutions are no more or less brutal and barbaric today than we were in 1981, 1991 or 2001.  In fact, I would argue that the result of actually living with real war has made us overall more sensitive and thus more resistant to the violence inherent in the system.

    Don't expect me take part in that argument if you are talking about the American population as a whole.  I doubt if I could be tempted to do so. I think the part I bolded in that statement is too ridiculous to respond to any further.

    In the debate with LULU, I brought up 1971’s Dirty Harry and his .44 Magnum.  That one of the more enduring cultural quotes of America is "You've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?" sums things up pretty well.

    Actually, I brought up Dirty Harry first as an example and I quoted him saying, "Make my day" when he hoped for an excuse to 'legally' kill a bad guy rather than take him in for a trial. Dirty Harry wanted to kill and the plot of the made-up story had the intended affect on the audience. They were not shocked, they were not disturbed, they were instead entertained by the death of the bad guy and they accepted the 'rightness' of Harry shooting the punk. The nature and ultimate affect, wars and other indiscriminate killing by our government, of so many 'made-up' stories the last ten years have had their intended affect, they have made the American public accept the wars and resulting war crimes and in some cases dance in the streets because they are so thrilled and entertained by extrajudicial killings.
      I say that "Make my day" is significantly different than, "You've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?"   The first quote demonstrates that Harry 'wants' to shoot the guy. Its a feeling that makes him get out of bed in the morning. It seems much more significantly iconic than the second quote which is just an example of pushing the bad guy to the point that he will give Harry the 'excuse' and the 'justification' to do what he and the audience wants. It is method as opposed to motive.


    I think the part I bolded in that statement is too ridiculous to respond to any further.

    So why wasn't there a Occupy Movement during the Gordon Gecko Greed is Good days? It would have been just as justified - there were workers losing their jobs, families struggling because of hostile takeover and liquidations of  factories, etc.  Yet no one took to the streets in protest like they are now. 

    I think it is not a stretch to argue it took a decade of war and economic suffering to finally push people to that point.  And part of that was an increased sensitivity on those people's part as a result of the consistent violence they were witnessing, as opposed to a singular act of wrong doing.


    That "Make My Day" was said and entertained audiences in 1983 is what I am driving at.  In the end, I just don't see any significant difference between the current American reaction to drones and the American reaction to Reagan bombing Libya in 1986.  

    In order for the argument about the last ten years of stories having some significant impact to hold water, one would have to believe that we danced in streets significantly more over the extrajudicial killings more so than at the beginning of those ten years.  Something tells me (and we would have to look at some parallel universe to know for sure) that had Osama been killed in early 2002, there would have been a heck of larger dancing party in the streets.  We probably would have turned the day into a national holiday. 

    Now having the country at war, with all the affirmation of war in the public discourse, is not making things better.  But it is more or less just re-affirming cultural paradigms rather than transforming those paradigms.


    I agree that the film is symptomatic of the problem but it and so much more of popular entertainment are also a contributing factors to the problem in what becomes a positively reinforcing feedback loop.

    It is that feedback loop which is the key to it all, and why I am focused on how Giroux is talking about this topic.  Because of the way Giroux presents his case, he diminishes the power of that loop:  War and its machine leads to Hunger Games, et al.  When the reality is that the war, its machine and the Hunger Games are both outputs (symptoms) and inputs (causes). 

    As I've blogged before, it is an understanding and appreciation for the dynamics of the loop that is critical if we are going to collectively tackle the issues.  From this perspective, I see Giroux's essay as a step backwards, even though I think he would agree with the point about the loop. 

    I guess I would sum it up by saying that I see Giroux sacrificing the loop (it is more difficult to explain) in order to undermine the current war effort and economic system, that in his eyes it is better to paint a less accurate picture of the dynamics at play if it convinces people to do the right thing (that is what I driving at when I said he was allowing his agenda to take him off track).


    I read the original post by LULU and the all of the debate since between him and you over the Giroux article. Before the ship disappears over the horizon, I wanted to point out that one kind of negative reaction to an orgy of violence is not an addiction to replaying the spectacle that it provides but a false sense of distance from events where force is applied.

    I remember my friends coming back from Vietnam having no interest in relating their experience over there because they were fascinated with the self-sufficiency of the "World" they found on their return. The World didn't notice when they left and it didn't concern itself with their return. 

    Bringing this up is not attempt to dismiss the issue of whether our culture is becoming more violent as a result of the kind of conflicts within which we have become entangled. It is a reminder that the results of change are not only to be found in vivid examples of shared experience but also in the pointillism of individual experience suffered on the margin of language itself.


    Thanks for reading the original, for following the debate, and then for your comment. I was very dissatisfied with my own arguments, largely, I think, because I was trying to prove several seemingly contradictory ideas and could not do it understandably. One of the ideas was what you say so concisely here:

    "...one kind of negative reaction to an orgy of violence is not an addiction to replaying the spectacle that it provides but a false sense of distance from events where force is applied."


    It is a reminder that the results of change are not only to be found in vivid examples of shared experience but also in the pointillism of individual experience suffered on the margin of language itself.

    This is one best statements I have read in a long time.  It is getting to that point where we can express that experience on the margin of language itself which is really the point of my issue with Giroux.  Of course the real way to express this is with poetry, but most people will not read it.  So others try essay.  The margins, however, do not respond will to the prose.  Giroux's attempt is a good example.  The Saints scandal is not what needs to be expressed.


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